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February 11, 2005

Prospectus Triple Play

Atlanta Braves, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Toronto Blue Jays

by Baseball Prospectus

Atlanta Braves

  • Jones & Jones and Pray for...Ground Balls? Realizing that Andruw Jones isn't likely to be able to cover all three outfield spots, the Braves have resorted to desperate measures. (Sure, Jones could've gone solo in the outfield a few years ago, but he's aging, dontchaknow?)

    First it was Raul Mondesi. Then it was Brian Jordan. At this point, maybe Benny Ayala can be coaxed out of retirement?

    Perhaps the Braves would be better served realizing that Chipper Jones is even more of a liability with the glove at third base, and move his bat to the outfield. This, of course, would give Andy Marte the shot he deserves to win the third-base job. Let's look at a couple of scenarios, using PECOTA:

    
    Player    Age  AB     H  2B  3B  HR  BB   SO  SB  CS   AVG  OBP SLG   VORP
    A. Jones   28  509  138  29   3  30  65  120   5   3  .271 .357 .516  39.2
    Mondesi    34  248   62  13   1  10  29   53   5   1  .249 .330 .429   7.6
    Jordan     38  187   49  10   1   5  14   32   1   1  .265 .319 .404  -0.7
    C. Jones   33  434  120  24   2  22  73   80   2   0  .277 .382 .490  30.3
    
    This is the scenario in which Jones stays at third base, With their declining roles and age, PECOTA doesn't see a lot of playing time for Mondesi and Jordan. In Jordan's case, that might be a good thing--that negative VORP would get worse the more he plays. Clearly, the Braves are hoping to catch lightning in a bottle with Jordan once again, but it looks like a marginal plan at best. Mondesi, for all his warts, is probably a good fit and value signing for the Braves. They're desperate for an outfielder, he's desperate for a job.

    What if they moved Chipper Jones back to the outfield, let a couple young guns play and keep Jordan as a reserve outfielder?

    
    Player    Age  AB     H  2B  3B  HR  BB   SO  SB  CS   AVG  OBP SLG   VORP
    A. Jones   28  509  138  29   3  30  65  120   5   3  .271 .357 .516  39.2
    Mondesi    34  248   62  13   1  10  29   53   5   1  .249 .330 .429   7.6
    C. Jones   33  434  120  24   2  22  73   80   2   0  .277 .382 .490  30.3
    Langerhans 25  187   50  12   1   7  25   45   2   1  .265 .357 .456  15.6
    A. Marte   21  324   85  18   1  16  42   82   1   0  .263 .348 .479  19.3
    
    Even if Jordan wildly surpasses expectations and Marte struggles, it's a no-brainer. Factor in that the Braves sorely need to inject some youth for the long haul, and it looks like an even easier decision. Ryan Langerhans can play a little, too, and provides an added hedge against unforeseen problems. Langerhans is out of options, giving the Braves another incentive to find out whether he can play.

    There's very little downside with Marte. If he stumbles in an extended trial, send him back to Triple-A for some seasoning, let Jones or a utility player handle third base for a while and give Langerhans some time in the outfield.

    The upside, however, is worth the risk. Marte is extremely young and likely to make rapid strides forward. His defense is well-regarded. His game is pretty balanced--if he develops on all fronts, you've got a perennial All-Star. Even if his development stagnates, you've got a quality third baseman who will likely have an all-star season or several.

  • What's Sexier: Strikeouts or Sinkers? One of the bigger stories of the off-season is the return of John Smoltz to the starting rotation. Leo Mazzone will have to watch him closely, but that's nothing new in Leo's world. Smoltz could be everything from All-Star to all-tired to all-on-the-shelf-with-a-bum-elbow. There's not a lot of precedent for this and not a lot of comparable players. PECOTA still sees Smoltz as a solid pitcher, but that's as a reliever. What can the Braves expect from Smoltz and his replacement at the back of the bullpen, Danny Kolb?

    Below are the numbers for both Smoltz and Kolb in 2003 and 2004; following that is the portion of their PECOTA projection for 2004 that was closest to their actual performance, along with their 2005 PECOTA projection.

    
    Smoltz:
    
    Year   G    IP    H   HR  BB  SO    K/9   G/F  Sv   ERA  VORP
    2003   62  64.3  48   2    8  73  10.21  1.23  45  1.12  31.2
    2004   73  81.7  75   8   13  85   9.37  1.35  44  2.76  26.7
    60th   46  75.0  65   6   16  75   9.00            2.57  23.4
    2005   50  76.0  69   7   18  72   8.53            2.98  20.8
    
    Kolb:
    
    Year   G    IP    H   HR  BB  SO   K/9   G/F  Sv    ERA  VORP
    2003   37  41.3  34   2   19  39  8.49  3.33  21   1.96  15.9
    2004   64  57.3  50   3   15  21  3.30  3.49  39   2.98  14.3
    60th   39  62.0  56   3   29  55  7.98             3.44  12.8
    2005   35  49.7  52   5   20  30  5.44             4.25   6.0
    
    Both Smoltz & Kolb were closest to their PECOTA 60th percentile projection. That's where the similarity ends. Smoltz continued to be dominant with good peripherals, keeping his strikeout rate high along with his strikeout-to-walk ratio. As long as his elbow holds up, he should remain effective. He's a relatively neutral pitcher, more prone to fly balls than Kolb is.

    Although Kolb's control improved slightly from 2003, he was actually less effective in more time in 2004. His strikeout rate dropped dramatically, and his groundball-to-flyball ratio ticked up only slightly. If he's really found a magic way to control where the ball goes, he's onto something; more likely, warning bells should be loudly ringing. PECOTA seems to feel similarly, expecting some regression and a VORP of 6.0 in 2005.

    The most disturbing part of Kolb's 2004 season is the monthly ERA progression:

    
    April     May   June   July  August  September
     1.00    1.69   0.00   3.68   5.25     6.75
    
    That's a 4.88 ERA after the All-Star break and a 6.00 RA (16 runs in 24.0 innings pitched). Maybe the singer from Right Said Fred is too sexy for his shirt, but that doesn't mean Kolb's too sexy for strikeouts. It may work in the short run, but eventually balls in play are going to fall in for hits, and it looks like that's just what happened the second half of last season. An extreme groundball/flyball ratio helps cover for a low strikeout rate, but it doesn't fix everything.

    Once again, the Braves will be asking Leo Mazzone to work his magic, both with keeping Smoltz healthy & effective in the rotation as well as keeping Kolb effective in the bullpen. If he pulls off all of this along with his usual tricks, we may have to anoint him "Sir Leo."

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

  • Lamar Giveth, and Lamar Taketh Away: Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water...wait, this is the Devil Rays, not the Sharks.

    After teasing us with a glint of promise and bringing in Josh Phelps and Brandon Larson, two players with significant upside--the Devil Rays seemed determined to spite us for our kind words. Rather than signing Joe Randa, a mediocrity who would have played well enough at third base to ensure B.J. Upton an opportunity at shortstop, they signed the badder Alex Gonzalez.

    Gonzalez's value has been largely based on his defense the last few years--he's basically your low batting average shortstop who doesn't draw a walk yet can hit with a little pop. Now it looks like the pop is fizzling.

    
    Age  YR  TEAM    G   AB    H  2B  3B  HR  BB   SO SB CS   AVG  OBP  SLG  VORP
    29 2002 CHI-N  142  513  127  27   5  18  46  136  5  3  .248 .312 .425  22.6
    30 2003 CHI-N  152  536  122  37   0  20  47  123  3  3  .228 .295 .409  13.9
    31 2004 CHI-N   37  129   28  10   0   3   4   26  1  1  .217 .241 .364  -2.9
    31 2004 MON-N   35  133   32   7   0   4   8   32  1  1  .241 .289 .383   1.5
    31 2004  SD-N   11   23    4   1   1   0   2    6  0  0  .174 .240 .304  -1.0
    
    That's an anti-Bondsian line of .223/.263/.368 during the 2004 campaign. Gonzalez never really developed since breaking in with the Blue Jays in 1994, and now he looks like he's on the slippery slope downwards. To put it another way, last year Gonzalez hit roughly the way a typical hitter did against Cy Young winner Roger Clemens. He's gone from a VORP of 22.6 to 13.9 to -2.4 the last three seasons; that's downright scary. So how is he going to add value at third base?

    To add insult to injury, Will Carroll has Gonzalez flagged with a red light in his Team Health Report on the Devil Rays.

    Basically, the Devil Rays have three reasonable options at shortstop. Gonzalez is clearly the worst of the three, and age may be hitting him hard. He could be insurance for Julio Lugo if B.J. Upton starts the year at Triple-A Durham, but is it really that important if you're the Devil Rays?

    Their best option is to see if Upton is ready in spring training; his bat is already there, but if necessary they can farm him out to work on his fielding. Either way, at that point Lugo has to play. When Upton settles into the shortstop job, Lugo becomes a valuable player in trade. Gonzalez need not fit in the equation.

  • One Way to Avoid Wood-Chipping Young Arms: Lou Piniella can have a positive effect on hitters, especially those with power potential who haven't hit their peak. Unfortunately, the same can not be said for young pitchers. So what's one way to solve the problem? Sign "proven veterans."

    In the past month, Hideo Nomo and Denny Neagle have signed with the Devil Rays, and Casey Fossum has been acquired in trade. Normally, that would be underwhelming, but when the rest of the rotation is Scott Kazmir, Mark Hendrickson, Dewon Brazelton, Doug Waechter and Rob Bell, you need help. Let's look at what PECOTA expects in 2005:

    
    Player       G    IP     H   HR  BB   SO   ERA  VORP
    Fossum       25  125.1  130  17  48  106  4.72  13.6
    Neagle       16   80.2   85  12  27   51  4.72  11.7
    Nomo         22  103.2  105  17  48   72  4.86  12.7
    Kazmir       19   98.0   85  13  53   85  4.51  15.5
    Hendrickson  26  142.2  170  20  40   74  5.22  10.7
    Brazelton    21  114.1  127  17  49   72  5.48   7.1
    Waechter     21   74.1   78  14  37   46  5.84   2.6
    Bell         20   98.0  108  14  34   56  5.01   9.8
    
    Including Fossum and the incumbent five, that projects to a total VORP of 59.3. That's not a pretty pitching staff, and it's one badly in need of an ace. Kazmir is the best chance for that, but the most important thing for him at this point is surviving the injury nexus. His making it through 2005 healthy is more important than his mowing down the league. Putting things in perspective, in 1997, the Braves' rotation averaged better than the combined VORP projection for the 2005 Devil Rays. Each Braves starter was more effective individually than what we anticipate from the entire Devil Rays' staff.

    Perhaps there is good reason to take flyers on Nomo and Neagle, after all--even if they're only short-term stopgaps.

Toronto Blue Jays

  • Reshaping the Infield: 2004 was not kind to the Blue Jays in general. One specific problem they had was an infield that was ineffective, whether it was due to injury, poor play or some combination thereof. Last year's totals, with Carlos Delgado, Orlando Hudson, Chris Gomez, Chris Woodward and Eric Hinske:
    
    Player   Pos  Age   AB   H   2B 3B  HR  BB   SO  SB CS   AVG  OBP  SLG  VORP
    Delgado   1B   32  458  123  26  0  32  69  115   0  1  .269 .372 .535  41.4
    Hudson    2B   26  489  132  32  7  12  51   98   7  3  .270 .341 .438  27.4
    Gomez     SS   33  341   96  11  1   3  28   41   3  2  .282 .337 .346   7.2
    Woodward  SS   28  213   50  13  4   1  14   46   1  2  .235 .283 .347  -2.6
    Hinske    3B   26  570  140  23  3  15  54  109  12  8  .246 .313 .375  -2.2
    
    The left side of the infield was brutal for the Jays last year. If only they had more players who could have "off" years like Delgado, the Jays would be just fine. Josh Phelps was the only player with more than 30 starts at DH, and he dragged his anchor to a .237/.296/.417 line with the Jays, good for a 2.3 VORP.

    Let's take a look at this year's PECOTA projections, broken down similarly to the above 2004 list. In 2005, expect to see Eric Hinske, Hudson, Russ Adams, Aaron Hill and Corey Koskie. (Hill will start the season playing shortstop at Triple-A Syracuse, but may be in line for a position switch to third base or second base.) Shea Hillenbrand and Eric Crozier provide flexibility and may see DH time in place of Phelps and others:

    
    Player     Pos Age    AB   H   2B 3B  HR  BB   SO SB CS   AVG  OBP  SLG  VORP
    Hinske      1B   27  450  117  26  2  17  52   94  9  4  .259 .338 .442  13.9
    Hudson      2B   27  428  116  23  3  11  41   78  6  3  .271 .337 .416  17.6
    Adams       SS   24  303   81  17  3   6  30   40  4  2  .268 .338 .396  14.1
    Hill        SS   23  267   71  14  1   5  26   39  1  1  .266 .340 .387  12.9
    Koskie      3B   32  417  116  25  2  19  57  103  9  4  .278 .373 .487  29.9
    Hillenbrand 3B   29  492  140  31  3  15  28   60  2  0  .284 .331 .452  13.0
    Crozier     1B   26  236   63  13  1  11  30   65  3  1  .268 .355 .470  14.7
    
    One positive in the Jays' lost season is that they get to replace largely ineffective DH time (soaked up mostly by Phelps last season) with one of their surplus hitters. Of course, when you lose Carlos Delgado--even in an off year--that's hard to replace any way you look at it.

    There's upside and downside to the above lineup. The upside is more consistency and reliability. That's the downside, as well, unfortunately. There's not a championship-caliber player like Delgado on the list, and none are likely to have a monster .300/.420/.600 season in them like Delgado might (keep in mind Delgado could have that kind of season in Florida, and you wouldn't know it once the park effect hits him).

    What does this mean? Mediocrity. The Jays aren't likely to be as bad as last year, but they're also not going to challenge the Yankees or Red Sox. Third or perhaps fourth place in the AL East seems all too likely in 2005. They've got spare parts to fill gaps, but the real value of those players may be in trade if one of them heats up. All of the above can't be played at the same time, so for now all they provide is potential and flexibility.

--David Kirsch

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